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Costa Rica: meet Guanacaste's marimba makers and co-operative bakers on an artisan tour

Costa Rica’s Guanacaste region is home to one of the world’s five identified ‘blue zones’, where residents live longer than average. Meeting the area’s artisans reveals age-old traditions — and a philosophy that might hold the key to longevity.

By Jamie Lafferty
photographs by Jamie Lafferty
Published 3 Mar 2022, 06:00 GMT
Randy Juárez, right, takes a break from the marimba to sing and play guitar.

Randy Juárez, right, takes a break from the marimba to sing and play guitar. 

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

By Costa Rican standards, Santa Cruz is a dry town. Not in an alcoholic sense — the city’s annual bull-riding bacchanal is notorious — but dry in that it gets little rain compared with so much of the rest of the country. Here you’ll find desiccated forests and pastures, dusty cowboys and ears of corn growing high in the sun. You’ll also find a lot of locals with specific trades and skills.

Willy Villafuerte is part of this set, a potter with a lifetime of experience. His grandmother taught his father; his father taught him. Like a dozen or so other potters, he lives and works in the village of Guaitil, just east of Santa Cruz. The only time he’s taken a break from his trade was during the pandemic when he instead went to pick corn at a local farm. “It was no good,” he says in his rudimentary workshop. “It was bad for my hands.” 

And the worst part of this job? “The oven. You’ll see,” he says, peeling his T-shirt up and over his belly in preparation for the inferno.

Willy tells me his technique is pre-Columbian. Locally gathered clay is mixed with water and soil, the bowls and cups turned on a hand-spun wheel. The settled shape is then left to dry in the sun for four days before being fired in a savagely hot wood-fuelled kiln. When I watch him finally transfer the finished pieces — glowing with heat — out onto a piece of corrugated iron to cool, I realise I’m holding my breath.

It’s altogether more relaxing to spend time with Randy Juárez, the marimba man. Another lifelong aficionado, he makes, plays and teaches marimba, the irresistibly jolly percussion instrument that sounds like rhythmic rain. He refurbishes instruments, too.

But there’s one significant hurdle to his business at present: the making of the traditional instrument is banned in Guanacaste because it depends on cedar, which can’t be harvested from the wild; currently, no commercial cedar farms exist locally. But to get around this, Randy recently planted all the necessary tree species for the component parts of the marimba on unused land. “It won’t be ready for 20 years,” explains the 60-year-old musician with a crooked smile, while a small troop of howler monkeys watches on from the trees. “I hope I’ll get to make one with local wood in my life.”

Being from Santa Cruz at least gives Randy a better chance of making it to extreme old age. The city and wider Guanacaste region are listed as one of the world’s official ‘blue zones’, where people live to ages far beyond global norms. Randy and others I speak to attribute this to a lack of processed food, as well as good weather, honest work and a general contentment with their lot.

Canano Díaz-Zuñiga attributes it to something else, too: vino de coyol, a specific type of natural, lightly fermented booze which he harvests from coyol palm trees on his farm just after the full moon. During the dry season he runs a bar at his property and sells bottles to take away. He offers three versions of increasing potency, though only the strongest has any real alcohol in it. “I have no idea just how much,” he says with a straight face. “But three bottles is the right amount, no more.”

Back in the city, there are local creators who take their weights and measures a good deal more seriously. The women of the socially conscious Coopetortilla bake savoury doughnuts called rosquillas, as well as provide affordable breakfasts and lunches to the community. 

Like all the artisans I meet in Santa Cruz, their humble business has been blighted by the pandemic, but the co-op has been going since 1975 and has a feeling of permanence. The founder, Margarita, worked until she was 100. The current coordinator, Marianela Jiménez Rojas, is a comparative youngster at 65, but she hopes to put in a similarly long shift. “Why not? I’m content,” she says, sending another tray of rosquillas to the oven.

How to do it: Artisan tours with Diria Experience start at $30 (£22). 

Published in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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